Bangladesh-Malaysia Relations in 2023: Issues and Directions

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The commitment of Bangladesh and Malaysia to beneficial cooperation and the enhancement of current relations to greater heights is a source of hope. Since their establishment of diplomatic ties on January 31, 1972, the two nations have made significant strides in consolidating their bilateral relations. The foundation of Bangladesh-Malaysia relations was laid when the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, visited Malaysia in 1973. Subsequent visits by the Former King of Malaysia, His Majesty Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah, and Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in 1983, 1993, and other events such as the D-8 Summit in Dhaka in March 1999 and the First Bangladesh-Malaysia Business Forum in December 2004 further strengthened ties.

Foreign Office Consultations, initiated in May 2017 and followed by the second session on February 28, 2018, addressed various issues, including bilateral trade, investment, manpower, consular affairs, and Rohingya matters. The trade relations between the two nations, which began with the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1972, have evolved significantly. Malaysia, being a major trading nation in the world and a regional hub among the ASEAN countries, has seen expanding trade with Bangladesh. In recent years, Bangladesh has become Malaysia’s second-largest trading partner in South Asia, after India. In the fiscal year 2018-19, exports to Malaysia reached a new high of $277.23 million, marking a growth of 19.3 percent. Key export items include readymade garments, vegetables, potatoes, cereals, fruit juice, fish, crustaceans, footwear, pharmaceuticals, plastics, tea, and spices. Bangladesh is Malaysia’s 30th largest trading partner and the 20th largest export destination, highlighting its growing economic importance. Despite the pandemic, trade between Malaysia and Bangladesh recorded approximately $2.6 billion in 2019, up from $2.4 billion the previous year.

The rapid economic development, strategic geographical locations, and active engagement in the immediate regions, coupled with their longstanding relationship across various spheres, position both Bangladesh and Malaysia as crucial bilateral partners for development. The diversity of their bilateral relationship is reflected in active and cooperative engagements spanning various sectors. These include trade and investment, manpower, education, aviation, tourism, sports, defense, science and technology, narcotics control, human trafficking, and emerging areas such as electronic commerce. The subsequent sections will provide insights into the events that unfolded in 2023, further illustrating the depth and breadth of their multifaceted relationship.

Diplomatic and Economic Ties

Bangladesh experienced a positive trend in remittances from Malaysia during the fiscal year 2023-2024, showcasing a consistent rise in financial contributions. The upward trajectory began in July with remittances amounting to 116.66 million USD, followed by 83.26 million USD in August and 63.32 million USD in September. Notably, October witnessed a significant surge, reaching 124.72 million USD, and this positive momentum continued into November, with remittances further increasing to 142.83 million USD. The year concluded on a high note in December, recording the highest remittance inflow at 151.25 million USD. According to data from the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), Bangladesh witnessed a 10.08% growth in exports to Malaysia during the fiscal year 2023, reaching $371.85 million, as compared to $337.81 million in the previous fiscal year, FY22.

This positive trend highlights the strong and growing financial ties between Bangladesh and Malaysia, contributing to the economic well-being of individuals and fostering closer economic cooperation between the two nations.

Bangladesh and Malaysia have agreed to explore the potential for finalizing a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) to enhance the growing bilateral trade and economic relations between the two nations. This matter was deliberated during the third Foreign Office Consultations (FOC) between Bangladesh and Malaysia, which took place at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Dhaka on May 10, 2023. The Bangladesh delegation, led by Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen, engaged in discussions with the Malaysian delegation, headed by Norman Muhamad, Deputy Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia. Recognizing Malaysia as a significant investor in Bangladesh, the Foreign Secretary advocated for increased Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from Malaysia, particularly in Bangladesh’s Economic Zones, aiming for mutual benefit. The consultations included an exchange of perspectives on matters of shared interest in the regional and international context. Both sides expressed optimism that the FOC, held after a hiatus of more than five years, would play a substantial role in injecting further dynamism into their existing bilateral relations.

Satisfaction was expressed by both sides regarding the current level of engagements, with an emphasis on elevating them through diligent follow-up on existing bilateral instruments and mechanisms. Stressing the importance of maintaining momentum, both nations agreed to facilitate regular high-level visits, and there was a commitment to actualize the proposed visit of the Prime Minister of Malaysia to Bangladesh at the earliest convenience. A shared commitment to working closely on ensuring an orderly, safe, and ethical migration of Bangladeshi expatriate workers was reiterated, focusing on reducing migration costs and creating a conducive environment for workers in Malaysia. Malaysia acknowledged the valuable contribution of Bangladeshi workers to the vitality of its economy. Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen urged Malaysia to actively contribute bilaterally and within the ASEAN framework for the swift repatriation of Rohingya people from Bangladesh to their homeland in Myanmar. Additionally, he sought the swift inclusion of Bangladesh as a Sectoral Dialogue Partner of ASEAN. Both sides affirmed their dedication to heightened engagement across all areas to further enhance their cooperation. The discussions were deemed productive and substantial.

Bangladesh Seeks ASEAN Support for Rohingya Issue

Former Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen held discussions with his counterparts from Malaysia, Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir, and Cambodia, Prak Sokhonn, during the 30th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Jakarta. Dr. Momen sought their endorsement for Bangladesh to become a sectoral dialogue partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The meetings, conducted on July 14, encompassed a comprehensive review of the robust bilateral relations, with a renewed commitment to strengthening ties.

In the meeting with the Malaysian minister, Dr. Momen commended the agreement on workforce and emphasized the need to ensure that recruitment agencies, under the jurisdiction of the Malaysian government, avoid exploiting vulnerable individuals. He highlighted the potential for increased collaboration in various sectors, including trade, energy, agro-processing industries, pharmaceuticals, ICT, and investment in Bangladesh’s 100 Special Economic Zones. Expressing gratitude for Malaysia’s support to The Gambia, Dr. Momen updated the minister on recent developments in the Rohingya issue, urging Malaysia to play a more prominent role in regional and international forums to facilitate a sustainable resolution and expedite the safe and dignified repatriation of Rohingya refugees.

MATRADE-Led Mission Secures RM125 Million Deals in India and Bangladesh

Malaysian companies achieved deals worth RM125 million during the recent Export Acceleration Mission (EAM) to India and Bangladesh, led by the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE). The mission, conducted from October 29 to November 3, 2023, focused on enhancing Malaysia’s exports to South Asia and gained significant attention from Indian and Bangladeshi buyers. Nineteen Malaysian companies spanning various sectors, including Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG), building materials, machinery, Information and Communication Technology, oil and gas, medical devices, and services, participated in the EAM. Key sectors contributing to the sales included oil and gas and FMCG.

The business meetings, totaling over 500, were organized in Mumbai, Chennai, and Dhaka, with collaboration from MATRADE’s offices and prominent chambers of commerce in India and Bangladesh. The EAM aimed to support Malaysian exporters in expanding their footprint in South Asia, particularly considering that India and Bangladesh are Malaysia’s largest trading partners in the region. In 2022, Malaysia’s total trade with India and Bangladesh reached RM86.22 billion and RM19.69 billion, respectively. For the period of January to September 2023, Malaysia’s trade with India amounted to RM56.51 billion, with exports at RM34.18 billion and imports at RM22.33 billion.

Similarly, Malaysia’s trade with Bangladesh during the same period reached RM9.81 billion, with exports and imports standing at RM8.67 billion and RM1.14 billion, respectively. The EAM fostered engagement through business matching sessions, market visits, and networking sessions, involving chambers like Bangladesh-Malaysia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BMCCI), ASSOCHAM, ICIB, Madras Chamber of Commerce, and Hindustan Chamber of Commerce.

BMCCI’s Successful 6th Showcase Malaysia 2023: Strengthening Bilateral Ties through Seminars and Business Excellence

The 6th Showcase Malaysia 2023, organized by the Bangladesh-Malaysia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BMCCI), successfully concluded in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on September 6. The event featured a series of seminars addressing contemporary issues and witnessed the participation of notable figures from both countries. Malaysia’s High Commissioner, Haznah Md Hashim, expressed joy at the event’s success, extending gratitude to BMCCI management and stakeholders. The program highlighted key seminars on trade, business opportunities, healthcare, the Halal industry, employability, and the digital economy.

Additionally, it showcased the BMCCI Business Excellence Awards, a modest fashion show, and an extravagant Grand Gala Night, exhibiting Malaysian products and services. One of the seminars during the Plenary Session focused on unlocking the untapped potential in the economic relationship between Bangladesh and Malaysia, exploring trade patterns, investment flows, and bilateral engagements. The session, chaired by the Malaysian High Commissioner, was moderated by Dr. M Masrur Reaz, Chairman and CEO of Policy Exchange Bangladesh. Further seminars delved into healthcare and the Halal industry, featuring insights from industry experts.  The event garnered support from key organizations, such as the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE), Malay Chamber of Commerce Malaysia (DPMM), Malaysia South-South Association (MASSA), Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA), Bangladesh Economic Zone Authority (BEZA), Bangladesh High Commission in Malaysia, and the High Commission of Malaysia in Bangladesh.

Bridging Medical Access for Bangladeshis for Easy Affordability

Attendees gathered at the Malaysia Healthcare Wellness Fair 2023, which took place at the Aloki Convention Center in Gulshan on October 14, 2023. The event showcased representatives from four distinguished medical facilities in Malaysia: Institute Jantung Negara (IJN) or National Heart Institute, and Prince Court Medical Centre in Kuala Lumpur, KPJ Ampang Puteri Specialist Hospital in Selangor, and Mahkota Medical Centre in Melaka. These representatives were present to offer information about their medical services to the Bangladeshi community. The fair, organized to commemorate World Mental Health Awareness Month, was hosted by Malaysia Healthcare in collaboration with Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) and their referral partner in Bangladesh, GD Assist Ltd. Featuring various engaging activities, workshops, and discussions, the one-day event aimed to promote healthcare and community well-being, bringing together 16 health and wellness providers from both Malaysia and Bangladesh.

Given that Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority state, concerns about halal food and medicine persist. The fair addressed these concerns by highlighting the availability of halal medicines in Malaysia, catering to the specific needs of patients. KPJ Ampang Puteri Specialist Hospital, for instance, treated approximately 1,200 Bangladeshis in 2022 and the services indicate that it will be on the rise. Moreover, the hospital offered free tele-treatment services, particularly for knee replacement treatments and cancer care. The primary focus remains on facilitating convenient access to healthcare for the Bangladeshi population and delivering cost-effective services in Malaysia, reducing the need for patients to travel to countries like Singapore for routine medical treatments, because of its exorbitant expense.

Strengthening People-to-People Connectivity: Malaysia’s Efforts to Attract Bangladeshi Students with Enhanced Facilities and Quality Education Commitment

In 2023, 52,799 Bangladeshi students pursued education abroad, with 5,714 choosing Malaysia, as per the latest UNESCO data. Malaysia, aiming to attract more Bangladeshi students, currently provides diverse facilities, and Higher Education Minister Mohamed Khaled Nordin assured an incremental increase in these amenities on 4 February 2023. During a meeting with the Education Reporters Association Bangladesh, he highlighted the excellent performance of Malaysian universities in global rankings, emphasizing the commitment to maintaining quality education and research standards. Additionally, Nordin mentioned the establishment of campuses abroad in response to growing demand.

Conclusion

In 2023, Bangladesh and Malaysia deepened their diplomatic and economic ties, marking significant milestones in their relationship. The Foreign Office Consultations and discussions on a bilateral free trade agreement highlighted the commitment to boost trade and investment. The 6th Showcase Malaysia, organized by the Bangladesh-Malaysia Chamber of Commerce, showcased the vibrancy of economic collaborations. Efforts to attract Bangladeshi students to Malaysia and initiatives like the Malaysia Healthcare Wellness Fair demonstrated the focus on people-to-people connectivity. Diplomatic engagements at the ASEAN Regional Forum and successful trade missions underscored the strategic importance both nations place on regional cooperation and economic growth. The positive trend in remittances from Malaysia to Bangladesh further strengthened financial ties. In summary, the multifaceted relationship between Bangladesh and Malaysia in 2023 reflects a shared commitment to collaboration, growth, and prosperity.

Series Editor
Delwar Hossain, PhD is Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Contributor
Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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